A wild ending

Wild weather has kept us off the High Moor this holiday, but the upside has been the opportunity to watch birds. This we have taken and have spent the last four days doing just that.

On Boxing Day we were at Lydford Gorge: a short walk as the main route is closed over winter, but after the descent to the waterfall, we climbed back up and along the old railway line to the hide at the end. Just before high tide on Thursday, we watched squadrons of Oystercatcher and Dunlin arrive on the Dawlish Warren mud flats, the sun catching the flash of wings like glitter. We watched Marsh, Coal, Blue and Great Tits at Yarner Wood very late on Friday afternoon, with fleeting glimpses of a Nuthatch and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the half-light. Yesterday we saw more Godwit along the margin of the flooded area at Bowling Green Marsh than we have seen before, and mixed in among them Redshank, Lapwing, Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal, as well as Canada Geese; and in the tree next to the hide, Longtailed Tits. Add to that watching Dippers on the Teign just up from Clifford Bridge on Christmas Eve, and seeing a trout (or perhaps even a very late salmon) jump in one of the pools.

This morning we were closer to home, back up to our favourite walk on Mardon Down, the weather rushing in from the south. In the space of 45 minutes we lost sight of the Moor completely but we missed the rain, which came just as we reached the Landrover (very clean and if not new, then definitely more pre-owned than second hand! One result of the problem with the central locking which I posted about in Technology is not all it is cracked up to be, was being persuaded by the silver-tongued salesman at Matford to trade in and up: another 110 Defender but three years and 70,000 miles younger).

2006 is not going out gently. The rain is hammering on the windows and it could already be tea-time, not just after lunch. It is all too easy to concentrate on our own small corner of Devon. But perhaps I do so because to understand the world beyond sometimes seems so difficult. These past few days have seen the unfolding drama of Saddam Hussein’s end, and yet more turmoil in Iraq. We caught the last half of Brian Walden’s Sunday reflection, A Point of View, on Radio 4 as we lay in bed this morning.

In five minutes, he put into words far better than I could ever hope to, a view many share. He spoke of lessons that need to be learned about the occupation of Iraq, calling it one disaster that we must never repeat. While entertaining no doubt about the physical courage of our troops, he asked our political leaders “to find the moral courage to face some unpalatable facts about Britain’s status in the world”, and in particular “the embarrassing impression that other countries look to us for ethical leadership”. As he put it somewhat bluntly, they don’t. And as for the rest of the world standing in awe of our righteousness, this illusion, he averred, is the source of many of our follies.

If I were to have one wish for 2007, it would be a government that understands this.

A change of scene

Change is both exhilarating and frightening. I do not necessarily subscribe to it being as good as a rest, and there are aspects of change that I find somewhat depressing, especially the gradual loss of physical attributes that I once took for granted. Nevertheless change is, by and large, a companion I welcome. Perhaps this is just as well, given the events of the past year.

Although I have spent much of the the past few months working in Bristol, I have, again, moved office within my firm. I am now back in Plymouth, where I began ten years ago, when I first left Bristol. Much has changed, both in the office and in the city, but I had a feeling of coming home. It was a change I did not look for but which was welcome for all sorts of reasons, and which I am enjoying enormously. A number of people have asked whether Caroline and I are moving. I have been able to tell them that we are staying put.

Ten years ago living in Moretonhampstead, and working in Plymouth, raised eyebrows; this is now not the case, as the professional and business community no longer live exclusively in the city. Not perhaps that they ever did, as many of the people I met and worked with lived in villages across the South Hams and up the Tamar valley. It was just that for many Plymothians the northern edge of the Moor was terra incognita.

Moving office means a different drive to and from work: from home along the Wrey valley to Bovey Tracey, then skirting the Moor on the A38, before dropping down to Marsh Mills, where the River Plym meets the sea. It is a longer journey, and at this time of year I drive much of it in the dark, but it has such variety. A local coach firm’s slogan, “Moor to Sea” is certainly true of my morning journey. At this time of year both woods and Moor seem almost monochrome in the early light, and such colour as there is, is to be found in the sky. I had forgotten this aspect of the daily drive until a week ago, when the black wooded valleys framed a dull blue sky with clouds of the deepest magenta to fiery orange. It was not the picture-pretty red sky of autumn evenings, but a meteorological warning of imminent storm (which we duly had). What leaves had been left on the trees are there no longer.

Coming home, I have a choice: back up the A38 or across the Moor from Yelverton. If I am doing the journey in the light I invariably choose the latter. It is a longer exit from the city but once over the last roundabout at Roborough, it is open country; and after Yelverton only a short climb through Dousland before the Moor proper. Because most of our trips take us south from Moretonhampstead, and rarely beyond Princetown, travelling north from Roborough Down lets me see the Moor from a different, unexpected angle. A December evening, however, is not the ideal time to drive this way home: too many ponies next to the road, always the chance of sudden mist, and on the desolate stretch of country north of Two Bridges the possibility of a meeting with the Wish Hounds.

Technology is not all it is cracked up to be

I have always thought that we have a rather low-tech vehicle, when compared to most modern ones. It is a Land Rover Defender 110: drives like a flying brick but in this part of the world indispensable. Our first Defender was third hand and somewhat spartan. This one was bought new but although an updated model, it is, nonetheless, instantly recognisable as a British classic.

It may leak, is certainly noisy and is remarkably uncomfortable if you have the misfortune to have to sit on the back seats on any journey more than 25 miles, but we love it. In the past four years we have covered over 75,000 miles in it. It has taken us birdwatching in north Norfolk, garden visiting across the South West and is our usual transport onto the Moor. As well as being the school run bus, it has ferried children and all their gear to and from universities (although I would not recommend the cross-London route we took last September taking one of the girls up to the University of East London). This morning it was a straightforward pre-Christmas shopping trip into Exeter. We dropped Ed off at school (drama rehearsal this morning and rugby this afternoon) before parking in the Southgate Hotel car park.

Returning an hour or so later, the central locking did not work. This is where we found the Land Rover somewhat higher tech than it might at first appear. When we bought it we were warned never to unlock the door manually once the alarm was set, as not only would this set off the alarm but trigger the immobiliser (requiring an expensive call out to reset it).With this in mind, we called a daughter, borrowed her car and drove home (collecting the shopping first) to fetch the spare keys. Back, much later, in the car park, I discovered the spare keys did not work either. I had no alternative but to make the ‘phone call for the expensive call out: 30 minutes later Lamb Garage (aka Land Rover Assistance) appeared.

He had no qualms about opening the door. The alarm didn’t go off, nor did the immobiliser trigger. He did not know what the matter was, but the engine started and I was able to drive home, cold, £135.00 the poorer, and none the wiser. The Land Rover will have to go back to the dealer on Monday, and once plugged in to their diagnostic equipment, we will probably learn that the whole alarm/central locking system has failed, and will have to be replaced. Life was certainly much simpler when you simply used a key to lock, unlock and start your car!

It left me wondering what we would have done had it happened last Sunday. We had driven up to Okehampton Camp and a little beyond, and then walked the military road before cutting off, up Oke Tor and back along the Belstone Ridge. Parking, we caught the first icy squall. Hailstones coming in almost horizontally at 40 miles an hour is not much fun, but in between bright sunshine, tremendous wind and good walking. We lunched sheltered behind Oke Tor (and watched another bout of dirty weather come over) and 45 minutes later had to take shelter again. We got back to the Landrover as yet another squall caught us. Had the central locking failed then, we would have been very stuck (and very cold!). But we had our mobiles with us and even if it had not been pleasant, no doubt someone would have come and helped us.

We rely so much on technology. I have been very tempted to buy a GPS for walking, especially as weather on the Moor, as we found last week, is so unpredictable. The problem is that once you start to rely on this equipment, you run the risk of losing the real skills that hill walking requires: map and compass work, the ability to estimate time, direction and distance; and, above all, common sense. It is like having satnav in the car, and ignoring the road signs: I once arrived at the back entrance (locked) of a hotel in Redruth, courtesy of satnav; a friend of ours didn’t pay attention when tapping in Moretonhampstead, and instead found herself on the road to Mortehoe: yet she knew the way perfectly well.

Machines are no substitute for sense.


Gloucestershire revisited

I have spent much of the past week travelling up to Bristol. We have been working on a deal for the past couple of months and, so far, have had four separate attempts to complete it. If I am frustrated, that is nothing to what my client is: but it is just one of those things. It has happened before, and I have no doubt it will happen again: transactional work is complex, and the devil as always is in the detail. It is not, however, all work: as with all transactions, there are long passages of time when nothing much is happening but when it is not possible to do any other work. At moments like these, I often find myself thinking of my life outside work, and of the things that really matter.

Sometime last Friday afternoon, while we waited for confirmation that the Irish lawyers were checking the documents (they weren’t), my client Alan and I sat and talked about the countryside. He has just moved back to his house deep in Gloucestershire, and was telling me that most mornings roe deer will come up on to his terrace; and of the little owls that patrol his garden.

I spent 12 years in the South Cotswolds, before moving further west and south. I loved that Gloucestershire countryside: the combes south of Wotton-under-Edge, the long scarp of the Cotswolds and the views across the Vale of the Severn towards the Bristol Channel and the Welsh hills beyond. For ten years I hunted across it, most often with the local beagles but occasionally with the Duke of Beaufort’s Foxhounds, and I reckon I got to know it well. Lower Woods on a dank day in early February is not much fun, even on a hireling named Ajax.

But even though it is a kinder countryside than Dartmoor and its in-country, where I now live, if I had to choose there would be no contest. I know it would be here: a bigger sky, the weather driving in from the South West and buzzards mewing over the high ground.

We were on Mardon Down again today: a cold and clear morning, with rain on the distant horizon. There are very few places where I feel more at home. When we came to live here in 1997, we knew little of the area: it was simply the only place where we could find a house that suited us and the children and which we could afford. Having decided to stay, I now feel that it is the place we have chosen.

I will be back on the M5 on Monday morning, with a scheduled meeting at 11.30. I hope that I won’t have time to talk to Alan about his roe deer: but if I do, then it won’t be wasted time, as I shall tell him about those I see most mornings as I drive to work.

A lot can happen in seven days

A lot can happen in seven days. We saw a house in late September, liked it and the following Sunday we went for a second time to look at it. Monday, we made an offer that was accepted, but with the caveat that we had to sell our present home. By midday Tuesday it was clear that the buyer we thought we had, was not going to be able to move in time to let us buy the house we had seen. Three days of worry followed, with our agent talking of dropping the price of our house, “to engender interest” (and I thought only lawyers used language like that!).

We walked on Mardon Down on Saturday morning, and as we walked we talked. And as we talked, we realised that there was another option: to stay where we are. It is a big house, and as the children grow and leave home, it can be quite empty. But with luck they will be back.

We talked of why we originally bought the house, of what we can and will do, of the changes that we will make and the decision was made. We looked out over Moretonhampstead, from the stone where Caroline scattered Foggy’s ashes on a cold January Sunday. It is a view of which I never weary, and we turned back to the Land Rover with the feeling of a great weight lifted. The children are delighted: after all, this is home to them and is where they have spent their teenage years.

It is now two weeks since we made the decision. Our builder has been round and we are starting to sketch out the timetable for the work that will need to be done. In the meantime, we have been deciding what furniture to keep, and what to let go. It is almost a new beginning in the house. When we arrived in Moretonhampstead nine years ago, we put our energy into the family. There was a lot we have had to do to the house over the years: wiring, a new roof (we kept a Cornish slate quarry busy), various bits of plumbing, a new boiler, new windows. What we have not really done, other than change the colour, is the interior. This is what we are now going to do over the next twelve months. Watch this space!

Autumn Gardening

It is raining hard, and has been for three hours. We managed a couple of hours after lunch in the garden: mowing the lawn and generally tidying up. When we moved here nine years ago, the garden was overgrown and ill-kempt. Our predecessors would be horrified to read this, and perhaps it is not entirely fair. When they had first arrived, they had done much; but as they had grown older, they lost control of the garden. It was one of the things that attracted us to the house: the opportunity to make our own garden.

We set about clearing it: all but one of the trees came out, and over time we reshaped beds, changed the levels and made a pond. The first autumn after we moved, we lost the one tree we had kept, a large mulberry. Caught in a storm, it split, with half blocking the road and the other half in the garden. We had no alternative but to have it dug out: the trunk was rotten and it was past saving. We planted another mulberry, although that was damaged in a storm two years ago, its crown split.

We are thinking of moving on. Four of the five children have left school; one is in Berlin; two at university and another will start next autumn: just the boy is left at home, and then for only two years. We don’t know exactly when we will move, or where: we have seen a couple of houses not that far away, and know that it is now not so much if but when we move. As I mowed the lawn I wondered if it would be the last time. I love the garden we have made. I can remember where we bought nearly all the plants, and when. Some have done really well; others have struggled. This summer has been so dry that at times we wondered whether we should simply have had a Mediterranean garden. I think that at least one if not two of the trees we have planted have been killed by the drought. The rain we are now having is probably too late, although the resilience of plants never ceases to surprise me.

Caroline spent the afternoon tending her streptocarpuses. They will come with us, as will the olive tree, the acers and the camelias. How we will move everything, I have no idea. I imagine that there are people who move plants, or perhaps it will be us in the Land Rover, with a trailer (so we had better not move too far!). Most of the plants we will leave, for whoever buys this house, in the hope that they will give them as much pleasure as they have given us.

October Blues

This year we have had one of the longest dry periods I can remember. Autumn came in mid-Summer, as the trees started to lose their leaves and the ground is iron-hard. Not much fun for a rugby playing 16 year old. Dry pitches may make for fast rugby in South Africa (or so we were always told when I was younger); over here, you simply get skinned knees and elbows, and tackling is an effort of will! Ed finds it very frustrating.

It has been all change this weekend, and we are now getting the rain (and wind). About time to, but we need a lot more. This afternoon we took ourselves up to the Hennock reservoirs: Tottiford, Kennick and Trenchford. Built between 1861 (Tottiford) and 1907 (Trenchford) to supply water to Newton Abbott and Torquay, the three reservoirs lie on the wooded ridge between the Teign and the Wray valleys. It is easy walking, and there are never that many people about. The woodlands are mainly forestry and there is little wildlife: buzzards and, over the reservoirs, shags. We have see roe deer on the edge of the forestry but little else.

Trenchford was built following an exceptionally dry period in 1901. I am not sure how 2006 has compared to 1901, but in our visits this year, and we go up most months, we have seen the water levels in all three reservoirs drop, and all are now the lowest we have seen in the ten or so years we have been here. Tottiford, the middle one, is empty at its upper end and there is little water the dam end; Trenchford must be 25 feet down from its high water mark.

We had intended to walk the Belstone – Cosdon – White Moor stone circle – Steeperton Tor – Belstone circuit today. We last walked it late last autumn, in fog and driving rain, and had hoped that we would have better weather today. The route gives tremendous views over the wilder parts of the Northern Moor. We have been walking the Southern parts of the Moor recently and both felt that we were due a change of scenery. We should have gone yesterday. Overnight the rain came in from the South West, and we woke to day that was definitely not a day for the High Moor, even in the right clothes. So shaking off the lethargy of a late start, we drove up to the reservoirs. It went on raining and, sitting writing this three hours later, my jeans are still damp. I was told to put on waterproof trousers but knew best!

Perhaps next week.